In the Palestinian West Bank near Bethlehem lies the ruins of an ancient palace. And it was there in 1969 that archaeologist Gideon Foerster discovered a ring – only to later leave it languishing. In 2018, however, closer inspection of the item led researchers in an incredible direction – and it went all the way to Pontius Pilate, the man who had ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
But before we get to the ring’s discovery in 1969, let’s travel back to Biblical times. As you probably know, the crucifixion of Jesus plays a central role in Christianity. In general terms, many people believe that Christ’s death made a relationship with God possible while also granting eternal life for his followers.
As such, Jesus’ death is a powerful symbol of the Christian faith. Thought to be proof of both his devotion to God and his love of humanity, Jesus’ sacrifice is said by many to have been part of his plan. And the story of the crucifixion has also been a source of inspiration for some of the world’s greatest art.
Scenes of Jesus on the cross have been created by artists from Peter Paul Rubens to Salvador Dali. And these sometimes surreal, often sublime works have left an indelible mark on the Christian collective consciousness – just as Jesus’ death itself has done.
But while the crucifixion at the hands of the Romans ended Jesus’ life, it apparently wasn’t the first attempt to remove him from society. Christ, it’s said, suffered persecution throughout his time on Earth, with this torment having begun at birth. Yes, the story of the Nativity itself involves a plot to kill the newborn Messiah.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Three Wise Men made a pit stop on their way to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. As the Magi paused at the palace of Herod, King of Judea, though, it seems that they unwittingly became part of the ruler’s plan to murder the newborn baby. Herod, you see, is believed to have been violently protective of his throne, killing anyone whom he perceived as a threat to his position.
In fact, Herod was so jealous of his status that, according to some accounts, he took the lives of three of his own sons to stay in power. The ruler is also said to have attempted to take two of his sons to court after accusing them of plotting to kill him. So, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the king had no issues with murdering a small child.
In any case, the story goes that when the Three Wise Men revealed that they sought the one born to be king of the Jews, Herod was not best pleased. So the bloodthirsty ruler supposedly then put in motion his plan to murder the infant Jesus – and the king used the Magi to aid his wicked scheme. You see, we’re told that before the men departed, Herod persuaded them to return to him with the location of the child – ostensibly so that he, too, could pay his respects.
The Three Wise Men were apparently warned of Herod’s plan by an angel, though, so they didn’t return to the palace. And once the king discovered that he’d been betrayed, it seems that his plans changed drastically. Unable to pinpoint Jesus’ precise location, the ruler instead made a shocking decision.
Yes, rather than track down and kill the infant Jesus, the biblical Herod came up with a far bigger plan. In order to remove the supposed threat that God’s child posed, the king apparently decreed that all male infants who were under two years of age in Bethlehem be slaughtered. However, the legendary scheme failed – in so much as Jesus escaped with his life.
According to Matthew II, Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt after being warned of the impending massacre, and there they waited for the right time to return to Judea. Back in Bethlehem, meanwhile, Herod’s brutal plan was supposedly carried out. Known as the Massacre of the Innocents, the fabled event is marked by the church on or around December 28 each year. And, in fact, the allegedly murdered children are considered the first ever Christian martyrs.
Then, after Christ’s eventual return to Judea, his family apparently settled in Nazareth in what is modern-day Israel. And it was there that, according to Biblical sources, the young Jesus was ostracized owing to his questionable birth status – as Mary and Joseph had seemingly not been married when Jesus was conceived. Subsequently, the Son of God began preaching and was accused of being mad.
And once Jesus’ reputation as a teacher and healer began to grow, it seems that the Roman authorities – along with Jewish elders – turned on him. Large crowds can spell trouble for despotic rulers, and the Son of God was proving popular. Christ was therefore apparently branded, among other things, a blasphemer and an enemy of the Roman Empire.
Consequently, it’s held that Jesus was arrested for his alleged crimes and found himself before the fifth prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Largely believed to have been a violent and imperious ruler, Pilate was reportedly disdainful of the Jewish people and overly fond of executions. And the decision that he is said to have made during Jesus’ trial would forever place him in the annals of history.
Not much is known about Pilate’s life outside of his service to the Roman Empire, although it’s likely that he was from a fairly middle-class family based in central Italy. He also became the Roman Prefect of Judea in 26 A.D., after which he was accused of both insulting Jews and attacking Samaritans.
Yet although Pilate was, it seems, universally reviled for his behavior, his attitude softened for a while after meeting Jesus, according to Biblical accounts. Indeed, it’s said that at one stage of the trial he even considered letting the Son of God go. The ruler ultimately washed his hands of the whole situation, though, by supposedly sanctioning Jesus’ death.
That decision – and the man who reportedly made it – of course left an indelible mark on history. And what’s more, items that apparently date back to Biblical times are still being found. Which brings us back to why Gideon Foerster was in the modern-day West Bank. Beginning in 1968, the archaeologist – along with a team from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem – had been searching the area for any ancient relics that could be uncovered.
Certainly, the region that Foerster was combing had a link to at least one Biblical figure. Before Herod died, he apparently had an enormous palatial complex built in the area. Part royal home and part fortress, the site contained an enormous bathhouse, an aqueduct and four huge towers. The building was named Herodium, and the king is believed to have been buried there after his death in 4 B.C.
Understandably, then, the site is of interest to some archaeologists, and an exploration and dig was duly carried out at Herodium between 1968 and 1969. Led by Foerster, the excavation yielded a variety of relics, including coins, arrowheads, glass and pottery.
But it wasn’t until several decades later that one of the items – a copper ring – really piqued interest. Indeed, although the piece of jewelry had been unearthed by Foerster and his team in the 1960s, it only got experts truly excited in 2018. What’s so special about the ring, you might ask? Well, according to researchers in Israel, it could have major historical importance.
After the ring was given a thorough cleaning, you see, it took on a very different aspect – and what appeared on the surface of the piece shocked the researchers working on it. Underneath the grime, and alongside an emblem of a wine vessel known as a krater, were Greek letters spelling out the phrase “of Pilatus.”
So, could Foerster really have stumbled upon a piece of jewelry that once belonged to the man who had sentenced Jesus to death? Or was it merely coincidence? Well, although the ring itself is simple, made of copper alloy and appears to have been relatively crudely fashioned, it does bear the right name – and that in itself is remarkable.
However, the ring is not, in fact, the first artifact to have been found bearing Pontius Pilate’s name. A carved limestone block discovered in 1961 and later known as the Pilate Stone holds this distinction. And the rock seemingly provided the first ever physical evidence for the historical existence of the man in Judea. As part of an inscription dedicating a building to the Emperor Tiberius, the stone bears the words “Pontius Pilate… Prefect of Judea… has dedicated this.”
Nevertheless, the ring appears to both provide further evidence that Pilate once existed and add more credence to his depiction in the Bible. Yet the copper artifact doesn’t in itself act as proof for the historical existence of Jesus.
And while most modern scholars are in agreement that Jesus did indeed once exist, many such experts question the reliability of the depictions of Christ in the Gospels. Moreover, although concrete evidence of Jesus’ life is, naturally, very hard to come by, that hasn’t altogether halted the efforts to search for any proof.
Yes, over the centuries, archaeologists, scholars and theologians have tried to find out more about not only Jesus himself, but also the events and peoples of the era in which he existed. Yet while many feel that the historical case for Jesus has been proven, details about his life and the lives of those around him are thin on the ground.
Now when a team from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem took a closer look at Foerster’s haul in 2018, they initially had no idea as to the potential significance of the piece of jewelry before them. Indeed, the relic, which the researchers have described as “a copper-alloy finger ring,” appeared fairly innocuous before cleaning.
Even so, the group, led by archaeologist Roi Porat, decided to subject the ring to a full scientific examination. This included sending it off to be photographed using a specialist camera in a laboratory belonging to the Israel Antiquities Authority. After that, the images of the ring were combined to form a 3D rendering of the object. And it was during this process that the simple piece of jewelry revealed its potentially momentous value.
Thanks to a method known as reflectance transformation imaging, the detail on the ring became visible. These marks appeared to be significant, too. For one, depictions of kraters – wine vessels – were common in Judea during Biblical times. And in addition, as mentioned previously, the series of letters on the ring’s face are ancient Greek – the language that was often used for communication between the Roman Empire and its citizens in the eastern Mediterranean.
But while we know that the Greek symbols spell out “Pilatus” – or “Pilate” – how do we know that this refers to the Roman Prefect of Judea? Well, Pilate’s name was an extremely rare one during this period. In fact, researchers believe there is no evidence to suggest that there were any other people with that name in the province at the time.
So, given the markings on the ring, it seemed as though Foerster and his team may well have found an artifact belonging to Pontius Pilate. And yet it should be noted that there is evidence to the contrary – not least because the ring itself is relatively plain.
Indeed, according to a 2018 report by the Israel Exploration Society in the Israel Exploration Journal, the ring is of simple construction and “was not prepared by a master smith.” And since the artifact was cast in one piece with a thin, raised edge, it certainly doesn’t have “wealthy governor” written all over it; rich Romans were far more likely to favor gold, silver, gemstones and glass in their jewelry.
In fact, according to the report, “simple, all-metal rings were primarily the property of soldiers, officials and middle-income folk of all occupations.” And in addition, the ring appears to have been made for the stamping of documents. Researchers aren’t sure, then, whether Pilate wore the piece himself or if it was sported by an administrator acting in his name.
Even so, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, this particular type of ring was “a hallmark of the cavalry in Roman times, to which Pilate belonged.” This, then, adds further weight to the argument that the jewelry item is linked to the prefect – although it does not necessarily prove that he owned it personally.
In fact, it seems that the biggest piece of evidence for the ring having belonged to Pilate is the name engraved on its surface. Talking to Haaretz in 2018, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Danny Schwartz explained, “The name was rare even in that era. I don’t know of any other [Pilate] from that era, and the ring shows he was a person of stature and wealth.”
And the location where the ring was discovered could also provide a clue as to its previous owner. Remember, the artifact was found at Herodium – and although a large part of the palace later became a cemetery, portions of the site were taken over by the Romans and used for administrative purposes. What’s more, Pilate had used the king’s former residences in the past. It’s more than possible, then, that Herodium was the prefect’s home at some point.
In the end, the ring’s construction and engraving may prove to be the determining factors in unearthing its provenance. And though we can’t prove categorically that the item was Pilate’s, it does seem to have a tantalizingly close link to an individual with incredible historical and cultural importance.
“It was important to publish a careful scientific article,” lead researcher Porat explained to The Times of Israel in 2018. “But in practice, we have a ring inscribed with the name Pilate, and the personal connection just cries out.”
“There is no way of proving either theory 100 percent, and everyone can have his own opinion,” Porat continued. The archaeological expert did, however, admit of the ring and its markings, “It’s a nice story and interesting to wrap your head around.”
It’s certainly possible, too, that the ring – which was previously overlooked for nearly half a century – has a powerful link to the Biblical era. But at the same time, the relic raises a number of questions for which the answers are still shrouded in mystery.
And this is arguably the case for many events that are described in the Bible. This includes, for instance, the site where Jesus is believed to have turned water into wine. You see, until recently, people thought that this happened at a place called Kafr Kanna. But new archaeological evidence seems to have uncovered the real site – five miles from there.
According to the New Testament’s Book of John, Jesus Christ turned water into wine at a wedding held in the village of Cana. Yet over the centuries several different sites in the Middle East have been mooted as the true location of Jesus’ first miracle. But now new archaeological discoveries might hold the key to this mystery.
In three of the four gospels of the New Testament – Mathew, Luke and Mark – Jesus actually declines to perform miracles to prove he is the Son of God. But the account of his life given in John is radically different. In that text, Jesus is recorded as carrying out no fewer than seven miracles, including transforming water into wine.
Scholars and archaeologists have of course spent lifetimes trying to trace the steps of Jesus. But the obstacles to proving that one particular location is somewhere that Jesus performed a miracle are formidable. The fact is that the Gospels, the records of Jesus’ life, were written almost 2,000 years ago, so pinning down specific locations is an almost impossible task.
For instance, Father Eugenio Alliata, both a priest and an eminent archaeologist at Jerusalem’s Studium Biblicum Franciscanum museum, combines religious faith with rigorous scientific methods. And he takes a philosophical view of the relationship between tradition and science. He also believes that each has its contribution to make to scholarship.
Speaking to National Geographic in 2017, he said, “It will be something rare, strange, to have archaeological proof for [a specific person] 2,000 years ago… Tradition gives more life to archaeology, and archaeology gives more life to tradition. Sometimes they go together well, sometimes not, which is more interesting.”
So first let’s take a closer look at the miracle itself. As we’ve seen, the incident is only recorded in the Gospel According to John. No one knows who wrote John, but traditionally he’s believed to have been the man referred to in John itself as a “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
The story of the wedding at Cana comes in John 2: “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.” That gives us the location of the wedding: Cana in Galilee. Galilee is actually in the north of modern-day Israel.
The passage from John 2 goes on to describe how Jesus’ mother, Mary, tells him, “They have no wine.” Her son’s initial response seems rather dismissive: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.” But it seems that Mary has faith in her son’s abilities.
Mary then informs the servants at the wedding that they should do as Jesus tells them. There are “six waterpots of stone” in the room, so Jesus instructs the servants to “fill the waterpots with water.” Then he requests that they serve some of the liquid in the jars “to the governor of the feast.”
This governor tastes the liquid from the jars and pronounces it to be good wine. And the story ends with: “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.”
We have a name for the place where this miracle is said to have happened, then. The trouble is that we don’t know the location of the place itself 2,000 years later. Nonetheless, contemporary thinking is that there is a real-world location for this event. The reason is that it’s deemed unlikely that a location with no basis in fact would have been named in John at all.
Over the years, then, there have been several ideas as to where the wedding at Cana took place. Probably the best known of those is an Arabic town in Galilee called Kafr Kanna, which many have believed is the location. This belief has been traced back as far as the 8th century.
Archaeologist Yardena Alexander even announced back in 2004 that she’d found evidence that indicated Kafr Kanna was the biblical Cana. Alexander had actually discovered fragments from stone jars seemingly of the type that held the water Jesus turned into wine.
Alexander seemed very sure of herself back in 2004. “All indications from the archaeological excavations suggest that the site of the wedding was [modern-day] Cana, the site that we have been investigating,” she told NBC News. That location of contemporary Cana, or Kafr Kanna, lies between the modern city of Nazareth and the ancient fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee.
But others weren’t so convinced. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson, for example, told CBS News, “Just the existence of stone vessels is not enough to prove that this is a biblical site.” He pointed out that discoveries of fragments from such jars are far from rare.
There was also a rival to the site where Alexander was working. This lay a few miles to the north at a place called Khirbet Qana. It was the location of a Jewish settlement from 323 B.C. to 324 A.D. And new evidence unveiled in August 2018 appears to support the idea that Khirbet Qana is indeed the true location of the biblical Cana wedding.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Dr. Tom McCollough, the leader of the archaeological excavation at Khirbet Qana, acknowledged that there were several sites that others argued were the location of the Cana wedding. “But none has the ensemble of evidence that makes such a persuasive case for Khirbet Qana,” he added.
In their dig at Khirbet Qana, McCollough’s team uncovered a stone altar equipped with a shelf. The remains of a stone jar were on the shelf – and it had space for six more jars. Jesus, as we saw earlier, is said to have turned the water in “six waterpots of stone” into wine.
The dig at Khirbet Qana also revealed an underground labyrinth of tunnels. These were used by early Christians “who came to venerate the water-to-wine miracle,” according to McCollough. “This complex was used beginning in the late fifth or early sixth century and continued to be used by pilgrims into the 12th-century Crusader period,” he added.
And Dr. McCollough was confident of the significance of his team’s findings. “Our excavations have shown that this was in fact a thriving Jewish village located in the heart of much of Jesus’ life and ministry,” he stated. But can we be certain that Jesus really turned water into wine at Khirbet Qana 2,000 years ago? Ultimately, that has to be a question of faith.